Epistula Polycarpi: Introduction

HULCE version of Epistula Polycarpi Edition

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This Greek-Latin edition of the epistle of Polycarp provides a critical edition of the text with links to manuscripts, previous editions, critical apparatus, translation and commentary. The critical edition is the heart of the site, but you can also study all these elements separately and print out the documents you want. The whole point is 1) to make everything you need available in the same space and 2) to provide an interactive and intensive environment for studying this interesting early Christian document. It is like a buffet: you can choose what you take on your plate. You can study the manuscripts and their history, have a very critical look at the edition (yes, editors do mistakes!), learn to know the alternative editions and study the reception of the letter of Polycarp over centuries. The whole history of the text and its reception is fascinating. Last but not least, you don't have to master Greek or Latin to profit from this site, because it is also a pictorial journey into the history of manuscripts and books.

The libraries, which have generously digitized their manuscript collections, naturally possess all the rights to the digitized manuscripts linked or otherwise used in this edition. It is acknowledged in deep gratitude that editions like this completely depend on their valuable work. 

This edition was created in 2022-23 as a pilot project for Helsinki University Library Critical Editions (HULCE). 

Bibliographical data: Epistula Polycarpi. Ed. by Matti Myllykoski. Helsinki University Library Critical Editions (HULCE) 1. https://libraryguides.helsinki.fi/hulce. Helsinki 2023.

Polycarp's Life and Work

Polycarp was the bishop of the prosperous harbor city Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), a Christian martyr and saint. The congregation of Smyrna was most likely founded during or in the aftermath of Paul’s mission in Asia Minor. We know that the local Christians were poor and in a socially difficult position because the author of Revelation praises the strong faith of the church of Smyrna and points at their relation to the local synagogue (Rev 2:9): ”I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan.” The visionary author of Revelation further warns the believers in Smyrna about the suffering and persecution they shall have to endure in the near future (v. 10-11). This is a glimpse of the situation among the Christian community under the rule of Domitian (81–96) towards the end of the first century. 

   Polycarp lived a long and obviously productive life. Scholars commonly assume that one scene in his martyrdom story includes vital information. According to Mart. Pol. 9.3, Polycarp says on trial in response to the demand to give up his faith in Christ: ”For eighty-six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong.”  Therefore, it has been concluded that Polycarp became a Christian very early. It is disputed whether 86 years point at his birth or his baptism. It has become customary to assume that Polycarp was born at the time of the Jewish War (ca. 70 C. E.) and that he died as a martyr in his hometown 156. Some think that he was born and died ten years later than usually assumed.

   We have some legendary information about Polycarp’s youth. Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 3.3.4), Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 4.14) and the so-called Harris fragments tell us that the young Polycarp knew John – which means either the Apostle or the Elder. Irenaeus says that John the ”Disciple of the Lord” lived in Ephesus until the time of Trajan (Adv. haer. 3.3.4), while John the Elder is mentioned by Papias (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.39.4). Since it is very unlikely that John the Apostle was active in Asia Minor, the case for John the Elder is much stronger here. Be as it may, this tradition indicates that the young Polycarp was an active Christian, and that the community of Smyrna was well-connected to other Christian communities. 

   In his letter to the Christians of Philippi, Polycarp does not characterize himself as the bishop of Smyrna and he does not stress the authority of the community leaders in his letter. This is related to the delicate main topic of his letter, the painful case of Valens (see below). Scholars have assumed that Polycarp originally was one of the elders of his community, and only later became its bishop. He was bishop when Ignatius wrote him a personal letter (Ign. Pol. praescr.). Irenaeus, in turn, tells that he had, in his childhood or youth, heard Polycarp teach (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.20), and he further says that Polycarp knew Papias (Adv. haer. 5.23.4).

   Through the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, we know that their ways crossed at the time Ignatius was in chains and on his way to suffering and martyrdom in Rome (Pol. Phil. 1.1; 9.1). This happened sometime between 115 and 120; the great majority of scholars also dates the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp back to this time. On his way to Rome, Ignatius visited Smyrna (Ign. Magn. 15) and wrote at least one letter to Polycarp himself (Ign. Pol.). In this letter, Ignatius gives his junior colleague advice on Christian life in the community and tells the community to obey their bishop (6.1) but also asks the Christians of Smyrna to send a chosen person to Antioch and with him also a letter from Polycarp to strengthen the spiritual bond between the communities (7.1-8.1). At the request of Ignatius, Polycarp also collected the letters of this more famous Antiochean colleague who was in chains for his faith and soon to become a martyr in Rome (Pol. Phil. 13.2).

   Ignatius and Polycarp shared basic Christian convictions. They both were staunch opponents of Christian teachers who did not believe in the incarnation and physical suffering of Jesus Christ. The trouble caused by these teachers seems to have been more than a local issue since Ignatius writes about it to Smyrneans (Ign. Smyrn. 5.2; 7.1) and Polycarp to the Philippians (Pol. Phil. 7.1). Ignatius strongly emphasizes the authority of the bishop (Ign. Smyrn. 8.1), while Polycarp neither mentions that he himself is a bishop nor does he know that the Philippians have a bishop; he admonishes only elders and deacons (Pol. Phil. 5-6).

   Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 5.24) tells that in his old age (in 155 or so), Polycarp visited bishop Anicetus in Rome to settle the Quartodeciman quarrel between Eastern and Western churches. Polycarp and other Quartodecimans supported the practice of celebrating Easter on the 14th of Nisan on whatever day of the week, while Western Christians preferred to celebrate it on the following Sunday. The visit ended in a peaceful disagreement. Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 3.3.4) tells that while in Rome Polycarp converted many Valentinians and Marcionites back to the “apostolic truth”. After his visit to Rome, Polycarp returned home, where he died as a martyr. Martyrdom of Polycarp, which has been included in the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, is a relatively early account of his death.

The Epistle of Polycarp

In spite of the unanimous witness of the manuscripts, Polycarp's letter to the Christians in Philippi (Pol. Phil.) actually consists of two letters, ch. 13(+14?) and ch. 1-12(+14?). According to the first letter, Ignatius is still alive and resides among the believers in Philippi (13.1), while in the second letter, Ignatius, Zosimus and Rufus are referred to as martyrs, blessed ones who ”did not run in vain” (9.1-2). This view was first presented by Harrison (1925), and it has become dominant among scholars. 

It is customary to date Polycarp's first letter to the Christians in Philippi to the first years of the rule of Hadrian (117-135); year 120 is a common guess. The long second letter is more difficult to date. The key argument for a later date – Harrison proposes 135 – is that the polemic against anyone who denies the incarnation of Christ (7.1) most likely refers to Marcion who became active in the 130s. However, the assumed reference to Marcion is obscure; in his case, there was much more at stake than simply his docetism. The most likely date of the long letter is relatively soon after the death of Ignatius.

Polycarp had established his position as the bishop of Smyrna long before he wrote these letters. He was respected by Ignatius, the great bishop of Antioch who visited Christian communities on his way to Rome, and he was looked upon by the Christians in the communities of northwestern Asia Minor. He certainly wrote more letters than the ones available; at least we know that Ignatius asked him to write to the believers in the East (Ign. Pol. Phil. 8.1).

The second letter in chs. 1-12 is related to a specific situation among the Christians of Philippi. They had ”provoked” (προεπηλακίσασθε, the reading of the best manuscripts is correct; see Apparatus) Polycarp to write them ”on righteousness” (3.1). In spite of the peaceful tone of the letter, Polycarp does not just instruct and exhort the Philippians about the good Christian life. Behind the request he received, there is a particular case he has to address. Polycarp refers to a certain Valens who was chosen as presbyter but had misused his position (11.1-2, 4). Without giving any specifics, he indicates that the sin of Valens was avarice (4.1; cf. also 2.2; 5.2; 6.1; 11.1-2).

Some scholars find it even likely that Valens was the bishop of the community, which would have made his case especially serious. However, the Philippians most likely turned to the respected bishop of Smyrna because they did not have a bishop of their own to solve the case. The church of Philippi seems to have been too small and poor to have a bishop. They had elders, deacons and (the semi-office of) widows like the communities addressed in the Pastoral epistles and in the letters of Ignatius.

In order to help the Philippians to settle this case, Polycarp wants the Philippians to see the whole picture. He wants to show that the crisis caused by Valens is not just a question about one person who has sinned; it is about the whole community. And so Polycarp writes about righteous life in the community, starting with a reference to avarice (4.1) and then moving on to different groups in the community: wives (4.2), widows (4.3), deacons (5.2), youth and virgins (5.3), and presbyters (6.1). The critical treatment of those who deny the incarnation of Christ and other heresies in ch. 7 is unrelated to the specific case of Valens, but relevant to the unity of the community, as is Polycarp's appeal to steadfastness in faith and righteousness (ch. 8-10). Only after all this Polycarp takes up the case of Valens (and his wife). He exhorts the Philippian believers (11.4) not to ”regard them as enemies, but call them back as frail and straying members” – and immediately takes up the point he has made in preceding discourse – ”so as to save your entire body. For when you do this, you build yourselves up.” He especially exhorts them to temperance. They must calm down and not let the sun go down on their anger (12.1; Eph. 4:26). 

The most striking feature of the long letter of Polycarp is its extensive use of Christian texts, which guarantee the truthfulness and authority of his teaching in a delicate situation. We can be sure that he knew and used Matthew and an extensive collection of Paul's letters (Rom., 1-2 Cor., Gal., Eph., Phil., 1-2 Tim., probably also 2 Thess. and perhaps Col.), as well as 1 Peter and 1 Clem., which both he often quotes. It is reasonable to assume that Polycarp knew at least some letters of Ignatius and that there are some possible allusions to them in his letter. It is notable that Polycarp does not seem to know the Gospel of John, which he could have quoted to support his theology of incarnation. Yet he seems to have known 1 John (cf. 1 John 4:2-3 and Pol. Phil. 7.1). The evidence for his knowledge of Luke-Acts is ambiguous; it is possible that he has used Luke 6:20, 38 in 2.3 and quoted Acts 2:24 in 1.2. Polycarp very likely used some particular books of the Septuagint (Ps., Prov., Is., Jer., Tob.). Anyway, his knowledge of and commitment to the early Christian writings is impressive. When Polycarp praises the Philippians' knowledge of the scriptures and modestly states that ”to me, this has not been granted” (12.1), he wants to pay respect to the serious believers who are eagerly arguing for harsh treatment of Valens (see commentary). 

The theology of Polycarp is not so Pauline as his respect for the great apostle. His concept of righteousness, which lies at the heart of his letter (2.3; 3.1; 3.3; 4.1; 5.2; 8.1; 9.1; 9.2; cf. also a reference to ”commandments” in 2.2; 3.3; 4.1 and 5.1), is much closer to that of Matthew, emphasizing the works of righteousness. The key text that Polycarp quotes is Matt 5:10 (Pol. Phil. 2.3): “Blessed are the poor and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness because theirs is the kingdom of God.” To be sure, at the beginning of his letter (1.3) he refers to one of the central ideas of Paul: ”For you know that you have been saved by grace – not of works but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.” It is certain that Polycarp saw no contradiction between God's grace and the necessity of righteous life for salvation, which he emphasizes in the same context (2.2): "...the one who raised him from the dead will raise us as well, if we do his will, walking in his commandments."

For Polycarp, the real physical suffering and death of Christ on the cross is a central conviction (7.1), and so are his glorious resurrection, his cosmic rule and his coming as the judge of the living and the dead (2.1; cf. Phil. 2:5-11). As we can see, Polycarp's eschatology is sharply ethical (2.2). It is related to his teaching about righteousness, which is the central topic of the letter. In his disinterest in the imminent expectation of the coming of Christ (Naherwartung), Polycarp stands together with his contemporaries, the authors of Luke-Acts and the Pastoral epistles.

In the letter(s) of Polycarp to the Christian community in Philippi, we see the beginnings of a theological fusion that has often been called Frühkatholizismus; maybe proto-orthodoxy could be a more suitable term.

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